”I love you, Al.” It became a familiar between-song audience cry as the Rev. Al Green got down to business at an earthy and wildly involving soul sermon last night at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville.
Like any good preacher, Green knew how to handle a congregation. When the proclamations of love poured forth before a fervently soulful I’m Still in Love With You erupted, Green answered honestly and succinctly. “Yes, but I love you more.”
Perhaps he did. Certainly no one could have predicted the sort of devout but youthful vigor Green, 62, displayed during his 80 minute show or how robust his voice – and more importantly, his intent – remained after nearly 40 years of singing on and off the pulpit.
During 1974′s Let’s Get Married, the most unexpected entry in the repertoire, Green cocked a leg in the air, arched his frame slightly backward and strutted to the groove like a man possessed. For the title tune to his 2008 Lay It Down album, Green hit a cruising altitude between tenor and falsetto that summoned a perfect vintage soul storm. And during the show closing Love and Happiness, Green navigated above a dense fabric of keyboard-driven funk that sounded less like a sleek soul revue and more like Talking Heads in its progressive, early ‘80s heyday.
There may have a bit of a tug of war between the spiritual and secular worlds that hold so much sway in Green’s music. Everything’s Gonna Be Alright, for instance, was a profession of faith he recorded in the late ‘80s. It sounded effortlessly vital last night, especially considering Green used it as a preface for a reading of Amazing Grace where he remained at bay from the microphone in order to play choir director for an audience sing-a-long.
But Green’s vintage soul hits were the true spectacles of testimony. “There are people wondering if Al Green has still got it,” the singer shouted near the end of his 1971 breakathrough hit Tired of Being Alone. With that, he raised his head to the heavens and let his ageless falsetto ring like a siren. As outward as the song seemed, Green’s hit cover of the Bee Gees’ How Do You Mend a Broken Heart was all internalized, pressure cooker-level urgency. And when the Rev. Green unleashed Let’s Stay Together with a 20 megaton smile, the near-capacity crowd lit up like a Christmas tree.
There was a sense of theatricality to this performance, as in the art of tossing of roses to female fans throughout the concert. There was also a little trial-and-error underscored by the fact Green continually addressed the Danville audience as Lexington. Mostly, though, the show revolved around a sense of boundless cheer and grace, not to mention a voice that has lost not of its persuasiveness with the passing years.
In short, Rev. Al proved last night that he still knows how to command a flock.